Just Say Cheese!

Do your cooking skills live up to your discerning palate?  Not to worry.  In preparation for holiday hosting, sample these flavors that really do stand alone.

At your next cocktail party, observe how the presence of a cheese platter creates a reverential gathering. Serve a cheese course at the end of an intimate dinner party, and notice how your friends linger a little longer over conversation. Watch the conversion of your mother-in-law, who swore she wouldn’t like that runny blue cheese, as she smears another crostini and relaxes into the sublime. There is a good reason why a fair number of near-vegans opt for vegetarianism instead: a taste for cheese — or even a hearty passion for it. For the multitudes whose understanding of cheese is limited to bright orange squares, cubes, bricks or silly-string cans, there is an entire creamy, stinky, delicious world just beyond waiting to be discovered. You don’t need a passport to get there. All you need is a sense of adventure and a little understanding.

Tasting

A trip to the cheese case can be a dizzying experience. There are eight basic kinds of cheeses made from three animals’ milks and produced via varying methods that range from raw, pasteurized, heat-treated or homogenized. You do the math.

Rather, don’t do any math — just taste, taste and taste again.

“Never buy cheese from someone who doesn’t let you taste it first,” counseled Claude Auerbach, head cheesemonger at Form, a relatively new Savannah-based fromagerie.

The flavor profiles of cheese change with the animals’ diets, their stages of lactation and the seasons. Lush cow’s milk cheeses tend to be sweet, buttery and smooth. Complex sheep’s milk cheeses often are salty, rich and crumbly. Velvety goat’s milk cheeses taste bright, grassy and acidic.

Serving

Experience a range of flavors and textures — and experiment with pairings — by serving a cheese board at your next soiree.

Plan for a total of one to one-and-a-half ounces of cheese per person. Select a soft, a medium, a hard and/or blue cheese for the board, along with a variety of complements such as nuts, fruits and pâtés.

“Essentially it’s a flight of cheese,” said Auerbach, who also recommends consulting the Artisanal Cheese Clock (www.artisanalcheese.com/cheeseclock), an informative and interactive resource for planning a knock-their-socks-off cheese plate.

“Another thing you want to remember,” advised Jeremy Little, owner of Sweet Grass Dairy in nearby Thomasville, Ga., “is to taste in order from the most delicate to the strongest flavors.”

For smaller gatherings, go European and serve a cheese course after the main entree. Little suggests matching the course with the overall theme of the dinner.

“If you’re having an Italian feast, serve a slice of Parmigiano Reggiano with dates or olives,” he said. “Go French with a Comte and a drizzle of lavender honey or Roquefort with caramelized walnuts.”

All American? Try a sharp white cheddar with sliced pears and roasted almonds.

For a cheese-infused dessert, consider a sweet or savory cheesecake. Or go lighter: fill individual ramekins with ricotta cheese, drizzle with honey and dust with cinnamon and walnuts. Bake Brie en croute with apricot preserves and Georgia pecans in a flaky phyllo dough.

Pairing

While wine pairings rely on personal preferences, Little uses a simple ratio of fat to acid: the higher the fat content of the cheese, the higher the acid content of the wine.

“You don’t want a huge California zinfandel with a really delicate goat’s milk cheese,” he said.

Christian Depken, proprietor of the cozy Midtown wine shop Le Chai on DeSoto Street, said there is no need for anxiety when it comes to pairing wine and cheese. “It should be fun and, if nothing else, a learning experience.”

He recommended finding a wine as close to the origin of the cheese as possible and avoiding spirits with concentrated fruit flavors that compete with the cheese, which should draw out the flavors of the wine rather than vice versa. For whites, he leans toward crisp, clean, mineral-laden flavors with strong acidity. For reds, he tends toward those with earth-tone qualities that complement “the nutty, funky aspects better cheeses possess.”

For soft cheeses, such as a cow’s milk Camembert, Depken suggested Champagne and other sparkling wines, or Calvados, an apple brandy from the Normandy region of France. He pairs Sauvignon Blancs with goat’s milk chevrés and Vermont Bijous, and Sauternes with pungent Stiltons and velvety blues like Italy’s La Tur triple-cream.

Medium cheeses call for bolder flavors. With a caramel-tinged Manchego, Depken looks for wines from the La Mancha region of Spain. For a buttery, semi-firm Tomme, he recommended a snappy white from Apremont. A smoky Gouda? He might try a drier Riesling. A hard, nutty pecorino works beautifully with an aged Chianti, and a sweet port tames a sharp cheddar.

Keeping

Store your milky morsels in an area of the refrigerator with the lowest humidity, such as the vegetable crisper or cheese/meat drawer. Wrap each cheese individually in wax or parchment paper, then cover in plastic wrap or place in a plastic container with holes punched in the top and sides.

“The wax paper allows the cheeses to breathe, while the plastic keeps them from drying out,” said Little. “Don’t buy more cheese than you can eat in the next 10 to 14 days.”

Don’t waste leftovers, either, says Form’s Auerbach. “Throw remnants in an Alfredo sauce,” he suggested, “or in a grown-up version of mac ’n’ cheese. If your cheese gets hard, just grate it.”

He also cautions against throwing out cheese that starts to mold. “If the mold is blue, just cut that part off – that’s just natural. If it’s green, that’s bad and it means your cheese is starting to turn, and you need to dispose of it.” Toss it if it smells of ammonia as well.

Where to Buy

Though the major supermarket chains stock a wide variety of cheeses that offer entree into the wonderful world of cheese, Savannah is graced by a few knowledgeable cheesemongers, who specialize in cheeses from farms that employ small-batch, sustainable, old-world production methods — some made right in Savannah’s backyard.

Form, 1801 Habersham St., 236-7642, www.form-cwg.com

Savannah’s own fromagerie, located in the former Eos building and distinguishable by the pingpong table out front, offers a selection of more than 50 domestic and international artisanal cheeses, plus 300 small-grower wines. Its cheese club members receive a rotating, never-repeated assortment of three cheeses (one soft, one medium, and one hard or blue) every month.

Savannah Bee Company, 211 Johnny Mercer Blvd., 104 W. Broughton St. and 1 W. River St., (800) 955-5080, www.savannahbee.com

In addition to specially blended and subtly sweet Cheese Honey and whole honeycombs, this hometown beekeeper’s stores stock tangy-sweet Belle Chevré goat cheese from Alabama.

Thrive Carry Out Café, 4700 E. Highway 80, 898-2131, www.thriveacarryoutcafe.com

This strip mall eatery and mini farmer’s market on Whitemarsh Island was one of the first purveyors to champion the farm-to-table movement in Savannah. Thrive’s cheese case stocks Georgia-grazed-and-made cheeses from Sweetgrass Dairy and Flatcreek Lodge

Where to Try

If the thought of building your own cheese clock leaves your head spinning, indulge in a cheese plate at one of these local restaurants.

Alligator Soul, 114 Barnard St., 232-7899, www.alligatorsoul.com

Committed to serving fresh, local fare with inventive twists, this upscale eatery offers a cheese course with Georgia-made artisanal cheeses from Flat Creek Lodge, assorted fresh-baked breads, mixed seasonal fruits and warmed nuts.

Avia, 14 Barnard St., 233-2116, www.aviahotel.com/savannah

This constantly evolving and envelope-pushing hotel kitchen serves three to five selections of cheeses, a mix of local and international fromage, with Savannah Bee honeys, nuts, and fruits. Definitely order the charcuterie alongside the cheeseboard.

Cha Bella, 102 E. Broad St., 790-7888, www.cha-bella.com

This restaurant’s fresh and seasonal approach to its ever-changing menu extends to its cheeseboard, built for two or four people and featuring handcrafted cheeses from alongside chef-inspired compotes and other garnishes.

Jazz’d, 53 Barnard St., 236-7777, www.jazzdsavannah.com

If the sounds of Sinatra don’t melt your heart in this swank basement tapas bar, the warmed aromatic cheeses spread on rosemary flatbread will.

Papillote, 218 W. Broughton St., 232-1881, www.papillote-savannah.com

A little slice of Paris in the Hostess City, this carryout café serves four international cheeses with fresh brioche. May we?

Wright Square Café, 21 W. York St. and 7360 Skidaway Road, Ste. E1, 349-2452, www.wrightsquarecafe.com

This bistro offers an array of artisanal cheese with preserves, honey and spicy nuts. Order alongside the Country Truffle Pâté, and you’ll enjoy a sophisticated and luscious meal.

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